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A bite from this type of flea, commonly found on rock squirrels in the Western U.S., can pass plague to humans. (CDC)

Plague Infects New Mexico Man

by Scott Hensley
May 9, 2011

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Plague cases among cats in New Mexico.

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Plague may be forgotten, but it's not gone.

A 58-year-old New Mexico man was hospitalized for a week after showing up at an emergency room in April with a high fever and pain in his lower abdomen and groin, the Sante Fe New Mexican reported.

The New Mexico Department of Health said the man, whose name wasn't released, represented the first case of plague in the U.S. this year. A blood sample from the man, a resident of Sante Fe County, tested positive for the disease last week.

He's doing fine now, authorities said. They're still investigating how he may have come down with the illness. Bites from infected fleas are a common source of the disease.

New Mexico, it turns out, leads the U.S. in human plague cases. Sixty-five of the 134 plague cases reported in the U.S. since 1990 have been in New Mexico, according to a 2010 health department report on infectious disease in the state. On average, between 10 and 20 human cases are reported in the U.S. each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, a germ that likes living in rodents, including rock squirrels, prairie dogs and plain old rats. Fleas can jump to people or make a pit stop on their pets.

Indeed, in 2009 there were nine cases of plague confirmed in dogs and nine in cats in New Mexico. That same year, six New Mexicans were found to have been infected with plague.

Two of the people who became ill "had a history of lying in bed with a dog that was allowed to roam and hunt and for which no flea prevention was used," the health department said.

In rare cases, an infected cat can pass plague along to a human with a bite or a cough.

The illness, though potentially deadly, can be treated with antibiotics. About 1 in 7 cases is fatal.

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